Shakespeare in Modern English?

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John F
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Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Wed Oct 07, 2015 7:46 am

Shakespeare in Modern English?
By JAMES SHAPIRO
OCT. 7, 2015

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.

Many in the theater community have known that this day was coming, though it doesn’t lessen the shock. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been one of the stars in the Shakespeare firmament since it was founded in 1935. While the festival’s organizers insist that they also remain committed to staging Shakespeare’s works in his own words, they have set a disturbing precedent. Other venues, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the University of Utah and Orlando Shakespeare Theater, have already signed on to produce some of these translations.

However well intended, this experiment is likely to be a waste of money and talent, for it misdiagnoses the reason that Shakespeare’s plays can be hard for playgoers to follow. The problem is not the often knotty language; it’s that even the best directors and actors — British as well as American — too frequently offer up Shakespeare’s plays without themselves having a firm enough grasp of what his words mean.

Claims that Shakespeare’s language is unintelligible go back to his own day. His great rival, Ben Jonson, reportedly complained about “some bombast speeches of ‘Macbeth,’ which are not to be understood.” Jonson failed to see that Macbeth’s dense soliloquies were intentionally difficult; Shakespeare was capturing a feverish mind at work, tracing the turbulent arc of a character’s moral crisis. Even if audiences strain to understand exactly what Macbeth says, they grasp what Macbeth feels — but only if an actor knows what that character’s words mean.

Two years ago I witnessed a different kind of theatrical experiment, in which Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” in the original language, trimmed to 90 minutes, was performed before an audience largely unfamiliar with Shakespeare: inmates at Rikers Island. The performance was part of the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit initiative. No inmates walked out on the performance, though they were free to do so. They were deeply engrossed, many at the edge of their seats, some crying out at various moments (much as Elizabethan audiences once did) and visibly moved by what they saw.

Did they understand every word? I doubt it. I’m not sure anybody other than Shakespeare, who invented quite a few words, ever has. But the inmates, like any other audience witnessing a good production, didn’t have to follow the play line for line, because the actors, and their director, knew what the words meant; they found in Shakespeare’s language the clues to the personalities of the characters.

I’ve had a chance to look over a prototype translation of “Timon of Athens” that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been sharing at workshops and readings for the past five years. While the work of an accomplished playwright, it is a hodgepodge, neither Elizabethan nor contemporary, and makes for dismal reading.

To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse. They will search for them in vain in the translation: The music and rhythm of iambic pentameter are gone. Gone, too, are the shifts — which allow actors to register subtle changes in intimacy — between “you” and “thee.” Even classical allusions are scrapped.

Shakespeare’s use of resonance and ambiguity, defining features of his language, is also lost in translation. For example, in Shakespeare’s original, when the misanthropic Timon addresses a pair of prostitutes and rails about how money corrupts every aspect of social relations, he urges them to “plague all, / That your activity may defeat and quell / The source of all erection.” A primary meaning of “erection” for Elizabethans was social advancement or promotion; Timon hates social climbers. The wry sexual meaning of “erection,” also present here, was secondary. But the new translation ignores the social resonance, turning the line into a sordid joke: Timon now speaks of “the source of all erections.”

Shakespeare borrowed almost all his plots and wrote for a theater that required only a handful of props, no scenery and no artificial lighting. The only thing Shakespearean about his plays is the language. I’ll never understand why, when you attend a Shakespeare production these days, you find listed in the program a fight director, a dramaturge, a choreographer and lighting, set and scenery designers — but rarely an expert steeped in Shakespeare’s language and culture.

A technology entrepreneur’s foundation is bankrolling the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new venture. I’d prefer to see it spend its money hiring such experts and enabling those 36 promising American playwrights to devote themselves to writing the next Broadway hit like “Hamilton,” rather than waste their time stripping away what’s Shakespearean about “King Lear” or “Hamlet.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/opini ... glish.html
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Oct 07, 2015 8:28 pm

I saw this and was going to post it myself. I find it interesting that Ben Jonson singles out Macbeth, a play notably lacking in obscure writing, pellucid even to modern audiences, refractory to actor/director ignorance, and therefore perhaps Shakespeare's most accessible great tragedy. Maybe Jonson had trouble understanding the Scots accent in which it was probably delivered in Shakespeare's time. ;)

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John F
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Thu Oct 08, 2015 2:22 am

Oh, that's not how I'd describe the language of "Macbeth." The story is among the simplest and most direct in Shakespeare, as the play is his shortest. It's not the vocabulary but passages like the last sentence here that are knotty:

MACBETH Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH What beast was't, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.

But merely "modernizing" the text is no help with this kind of thing, nor is it clear how to rewrite it. Cut it? That's for school editions, not dramatic performances for grown-ups.

I'm sure Shakespeare's players didn't put on a Scottish accent. Regional accents were for comic characters like Fluellen the Welshman in "Henry V" and indeed the porter in "Macbeth." This play was written to be performed before King Charles I, who was also King Charles VI of Scotland (hence the United Kingdom); part of its intent was to flatter him, as in the vision of Banquo's royal descendants who were James's ancestors. Of course we have no evidence of how the actors spoke the lines, other than the lines themselves, but I'm sure the noble and royal characters including Macbeth spoke as such.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 09, 2015 7:50 am

John F wrote:I'm sure Shakespeare's players didn't put on a Scottish accent. Regional accents were for comic characters like Fluellen the Welshman in "Henry V" and indeed the porter in "Macbeth." This play was written to be performed before King Charles I, who was also King Charles VI of Scotland (hence the United Kingdom); part of its intent was to flatter him, as in the vision of Banquo's royal descendants who were James's ancestors. Of course we have no evidence of how the actors spoke the lines, other than the lines themselves, but I'm sure the noble and royal characters including Macbeth spoke as such.

You are probably right, but just to defend myself, I didn't dream up the idea. I got it from no less than Ian McKellen, who demonstrated what the "Tomorrow" speech would have sounded like in what he judged to be the upper-class Scottish accent of the time. There were educated people in Scotland and Wales in the 17th century who co-existed with the yokels, just as in England. For a Fluellen I will give you an Owen Glendower.

Also, I assume you meant King James I. Charles I did not come to the throne until 1625, nine years after Shakespeare's death. For all I know, Charles may have caught a performance of Macbeth at the tail end of English theatre before the Puritans had completed their destruction of it, but Shakespeare obviously could not have written the play to please a king who was yet to come.

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John F
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Fri Oct 09, 2015 4:13 pm

Right you are - James it is.

Ian McKellen is a brilliant actor (and despite his name, not a Scotsman, so no chauvinist), but I believe that was probably an idea of his own rather than actual scholarship. There often are clues in literary texts as to how they were spoken, rhymes and "misspellings," and possibly someone has found evidence of upper-class Scottish speech in the text of "Macbeth." I don't know.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Oct 09, 2015 4:36 pm

I always assumed that John F was aware of this YouTube, but just in case..... :) I am not qualified to comment beyond "this is interesting," but some of the scholarship on which they base their reconstruction comes from, get this, Ben Jonson.


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John F
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Sat Oct 10, 2015 12:30 pm

Interesting. And I'm relieved that the discussion doesn't contradict me. :) But of course it has no bearing on whether "Macbeth" was ever acted in a 17th century Scots accent instead of 17th century English.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by dulcinea » Sun Oct 11, 2015 9:55 am

The problem with the English language is that there is no English equivalent of the Academies that set up the proper standards for French and Spanish. The Spanish of Cervantes is much easier to read than the English of Shakespeare thanks to the work of the Real Academia de la Lengua, which makes sure that the Spanish language does not stray too far from that used by C, Lope and their contemporaries.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by Guitarist » Sun Oct 11, 2015 10:58 am

John F wrote:Shakespeare in Modern English?
By JAMES SHAPIRO
OCT. 7, 2015

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.
Image

jbuck919
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Oct 11, 2015 4:57 pm

dulcinea wrote:The problem with the English language is that there is no English equivalent of the Academies that set up the proper standards for French and Spanish. The Spanish of Cervantes is much easier to read than the English of Shakespeare thanks to the work of the Real Academia de la Lengua, which makes sure that the Spanish language does not stray too far from that used by C, Lope and their contemporaries.
I cannot comment on Spanish at all, but French pronunciation has changed considerably since and largely because of the French Revolution, which in a sense democratized pronunciation in favor of the lower classes and at the expense of the aristocracy. Also, the French Académie has been notoriously unsuccessful in holding back developments such as the proliferation of franglais.

The average difference between a language as it existed four centuries ago and as it exists today is something that linguists can assess with a certain degree of rigor. Though I don't have exact information about how French compares with English, my subjective impression is that the French of Montaigne and Rabelais is approximately as different from modern French as Shakespeare's English is from modern English. To go back any further than about 1500 is to introduce additional complications, for the languages were in a different state of flux prior to then. In any case, I am dubious about how much the relative change is owing to presence or lack of official guardians of the purity of the language. I have also heard it argued that English has changed more slowly than it otherwise would have if Shakespeare, a uniquely dominant figure, had never existed.

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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Mon Oct 12, 2015 6:06 am

dulcinea wrote:The problem with the English language is that there is no English equivalent of the Academies that set up the proper standards for French and Spanish. The Spanish of Cervantes is much easier to read than the English of Shakespeare thanks to the work of the Real Academia de la Lengua, which makes sure that the Spanish language does not stray too far from that used by C, Lope and their contemporaries.
Actually, that's the problem with French and Spanish. I don't know about Spanish, actually, but the Academie Française is merely the compiler of the primary French dictionary, in very slow motion; the 8th and most recent edition was completed 80 years ago. Samuel Johnson performed this service for the English language in the 18th century; since then, English dictionaries have been compiled and updated by whoever has the resources to take on the job.

A dictionary does not and cannot "set standards" for a language. it can only define the words. If a word is left out of a dictionary, that word nonetheless exists, and the dictionary is at fault for omitting it. If the Acadamicians believe their dictionary actually controls the French language, they are fools, and so are the Frenchmen who allow their use of their own language to be dictated to them by an obsolete dictionary. I'm reminded of King Canute commanding the tide not to come in. But King Canute knew that his command was ineffective and futile, and that was exactly his point.

What Dr. Johnson's and later English dictionaries have done is normalize spelling. There is indeed a correct way to spell "enough," and every dictionary agrees on it. Unfortunately, "enough" isn't spelled the way it sounds, which is "enuff." Now and then a crusader like George Bernard Shaw comes along and tries to "reform" English spelling, but it's too late now.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by piston » Mon Oct 12, 2015 6:42 am

Three volumes of the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie have been completed, to the word quotité, between 1986 and 2012. But it is a very slow process...
In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned....(Paul Valéry)

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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by John F » Mon Oct 12, 2015 2:16 pm

Oddly enough, considering their primary mission, the Academicians aren't lexicographers; at least the ones I checked aren't. They are mainly writers of fiction and various kinds of nonfiction. If you read the Wikipedia's article on the Academie, its customs and ceremonies, you have to wonder (or I do) what century we're in.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by dulcinea » Wed Oct 21, 2015 1:55 pm

John F wrote:
dulcinea wrote:The problem with the English language is that there is no English equivalent of the Academies that set up the proper standards for French and Spanish. The Spanish of Cervantes is much easier to read than the English of Shakespeare thanks to the work of the Real Academia de la Lengua, which makes sure that the Spanish language does not stray too far from that used by C, Lope and their contemporaries.
Actually, that's the problem with French and Spanish. I don't know about Spanish, actually, but the Academie Française is merely the compiler of the primary French dictionary, in very slow motion; the 8th and most recent edition was completed 80 years ago. Samuel Johnson performed this service for the English language in the 18th century; since then, English dictionaries have been compiled and updated by whoever has the resources to take on the job.

A dictionary does not and cannot "set standards" for a language. it can only define the words. If a word is left out of a dictionary, that word nonetheless exists, and the dictionary is at fault for omitting it. If the Acadamicians believe their dictionary actually controls the French language, they are fools, and so are the Frenchmen who allow their use of their own language to be dictated to them by an obsolete dictionary. I'm reminded of King Canute commanding the tide not to come in. But King Canute knew that his command was ineffective and futile, and that was exactly his point.

Thomas Jefferson learned Spanish in order to read DON QUIJOTE in its original language. If you follow Jefferson's example you will be very agreeably surprised at how relatively easy it is to read Golden Century Spanish. Your only problem would be with the archaic words that you will find, but even that will be a minor matter, since those very archaisms are still current in Latin America. Example: ANTEOJO, which means SPYGLASS, but whose original plural form, ANTEOJOS, still means EYEGLASSES in LA.
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Re: Shakespeare in Modern English?

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 9:49 pm

dulcinea wrote:Thomas Jefferson learned Spanish in order to read DON QUIJOTE in its original language. If you follow Jefferson's example you will be very agreeably surprised at how relatively easy it is to read Golden Century Spanish. Your only problem would be with the archaic words that you will find, but even that will be a minor matter, since those very archaisms are still current in Latin America. Example: ANTEOJO, which means SPYGLASS, but whose original plural form, ANTEOJOS, still means EYEGLASSES in LA.
I didn't know that about Jefferson, and assuming it is true, it is a considerable accomplishment. T.S. Eliot also "learned Italian" to read Dante, and James Joyce "learned Norwegian" to read Ibsen. Why am I using quotation marks? Because none of these people ever really mastered that second language, not even coming close to the level of knowledge required to pick up the subtleties evident to an educated native speaker. Frankly, I'm more impressed by the erudition of your commentary, even though you are a native speaker of Spanish, than I would be by anything those three figures had to say about the texts they managed at least to get through from their level of study.

(Jefferson made a study of French and Italian but could not converse in those languages, requiring interpreters during his time in Europe. The first and nearly the only US president actually to master a modern language to a considerable degree, and he did it several times over, was John Quincy Adams, who already had extensive diplomatic experience in Europe by the time he was in his late teens and, uncharacteristically for an American, took the language matter seriously.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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